In a previous post, I decried how many modern novels start with an in media res start to things—that is, they start the story already mid-plot and expect the audience to catch up, which is not just confusing to the reader, but may also alienate the reader, because it means they’ll have no idea who the action is happening to.
But literary agents, being busy people, only want to see the first chapter of your novel. So, people work to make their first chapter the mother of all first chapters, because they simply must capture the agent’s attention.
It’s gotten to the point where, if you don’t have a start to a novel that’s what I call a Crash Boom Bam (CBB) first chapter, agents may turn down your manuscript.
Now, you may ask, what’s so bad about a CBB first chapter? Don’t they draw the reader in?
While I get your point, CBB chapters are—among other problems—ruining slow-burn suspense novels. See, I love finding authors who know how to do a slow burn well, especially those who write in the horror or suspense genres. When you have a CBB first chapter, though, you destroy that slow-burn gradual building-up of suspense.
I’ll give you two examples of the beginnings of novels that I love, but modern agents would turn down flat.
The first novel is called Bedelia, by Vera Caspary, also the author of Laura, which was later turned into the classiest film noir ever. In Bedelia, the whole first chapter is a staid affair, talking about an ideal marriage between Charlie and Bedelia. Charlie considers himself to be “the luckiest man in the world.” And from all indications in the first chapter, he well might be.
Then, at the beginning of the second chapter, all hell starts breaking loose. Every page after that is a real nail-biter. I was hooked like a fish on a, uh, hook.
But if Vera Caspary had sent in that first chapter to a modern agent, without being able to send in the second chapter, her book never would’ve been published, because every agent in the world would say: “That’s boring. Why aren’t you giving me action?”
Well, the reason why there’s no action in the first chapter is to lull the reader into a quiet complacency and a false sense of security. But when the second chapter starts reeling the fish in, it’s too late for the fish to struggle. If the book started out with CBB instead, then some people might have said, “Nah, I’m not into this.” Luring the reader requires time and patience, but it works at least as well—maybe even better than—the CBB first chapter.
My second example is a book I read on a whim during the initial pandemic lockdown. I’d seen the movie the book was adapted from, and it wasn’t quite my sort of thing. But once the pandemic started, I was grabbing for any book that looked interesting.
Anyway, the book started out in a cozy little way. A young actor and his wife had just signed a contract to rent an apartment that they weren’t exactly keen on. But then, the apartment that they wanted had a vacancy, so the husband managed to wriggle out of the contract, and the couple rented the first apartment. They met their neighbors, who seemed very friendly. Heck, the apartment and the neighbors seemed so nice that anyone would jump at a chance to live there.
Sounds kind of boring, doesn’t it?
Well, wonder if I told you that the wife’s name was Rosemary Woods and that she and her husband wanted to have a baby? Yeah, that’s right: I just described the start of Rosemary’s Baby.
The book deliberately takes its time warming up. It is a slow burn. But three or four chapters in, I couldn’t put the book down. It’d hooked me because the author turned the heat up slowly, as opposed to quickly.
I’ve read horror novels that turned up the heat faster, and I didn’t finish a lot of them, because I wasn’t lured into the book—I wasn’t given breadcrumbs to follow. Instead, I was given CBB, and it was a turn-off for me.
Yet if Ira Levin had just turned in the first chapter of Rosemary’s Baby, the world would never know that Rosemary’s baby would have his father’s eyes.
As someone who’s written a few slow burn novels, it’s frustrating that agents need instant gratification first chapters. They seem to think that a slow burn first chapter means that you don’t know how to write a chapter that will “draw the reader in.” Unlike readers, who are understanding (as long as the writer knows how to write), agents seem to lack that kind of forbearance. And—I get why! Agents are busy! But the world needs slow burn novels, and we’re not getting enough of them, because writers can’t write them and write for a busy agent, too.
I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s a problem, as well as a sad state of affairs.